Though the “open plan” modern office, with its sea of desks, might look like the offspring of a newsroom or a trading floor, it can also trace its heritage to 1960s Germany. There, two brothers who worked in their father’s office-furniture business kicked off the Bürolandschaft, or “office landscape,” movement, which sought to boost communication and efficiency and de-emphasize status. As the idea took hold in North America in the decades that followed, employers switched from traditional offices with one or two people per room to large, wall-less spaces. By the turn of the century, roughly two-thirds of U.S. workers spent their days in open-plan offices .
But as the layout became commonplace, problems emerged. A 2002 longitudinal study of Canadian oil-and-gas-company employees who moved from a traditional office to an open one found that on every aspect measured, from feelings about the work environment to co-worker relationships to self-reported performance, employees were significantly less satisfied in the open office . One explanation for why this might be is that open offices prioritize communication and collaboration but sacrifice privacy. In 1980, a group of psychology researchers published a study suggesting that this sacrifice might have unintended consequences. They found that “architectural privacy” (the ability to close one’s door, say) went hand in hand with a sense of “psychological privacy” (feeling “control over access to oneself or one’s group”). And a healthy dose of psychological privacy correlated with greater job satisfaction and performance .